Why neither covid-19 nor the assault on US democracy has sparked national unity or institutional change | No. 181 — January 30, 2022
Tying two strains together
Here is the best chart I saw this week. I think it tells a powerful story, which we’ll get to in a second.
Now, “best chart of the week” sounds like a high bar, but that’s really because I’ve been coding a lot for an upcoming project and haven’t seen many charts! But this one is still really good. I digress…
The chart comes from this New York Times piece by Thomas Edsall. In it, Edsall pulls together extracts from interviews with political scientists (his usual, useful format) and asks: “Why did the national emergency brought about by the Covid pandemic not only fail to unite the country, but instead provoke the exact opposite development, further polarization?” I would add a few other events/dynamics that have failed to produce the expected positive outcome: the January 6th insurrection and profound increase in housing prices over the last decade.
Edsall quotes Nolan McCarty, a political scientist at Princeton, who says that “Covid seems to be the almost ideal polarizing crisis…
… It was conducive to creating strong identities and mapping on to existing ones. That these identities corresponded to compliance with public health measures literally increased “riskiness” of intergroup interaction. The financial crisis was also polarizing for similar reasons — it was too easy for different groups to blame each other for the problems.
But what’s notable is that covid-19 (as well as the financial crisis) did not produce equal polarization across countries. That’s where the chart comes in. It shows that polarization has increased more in America than in other countries as a result of these events (and others, no doubt). It is worth remarking on why that is. The author and interviewees point to a few things: the durability of white identity politics, America’s rigid two-party system and the incentives away from compromise that it produces, the “unique combination of a majoritarian electoral system with strong minoritarian institutions,” a three-decade-old trend of partisan and social sorting, and rising income inequality.
There’s a lot of other good stuff in the piece and linked papers. Especially about inequality. I suggest you give it a read.
Where things start coming together is when Devin Caughey, James Dunham, and Christopher Warshaw write that there has been…
a surprisingly close correspondence between mass and elite trends. Specifically, we find that: (1) ideological divergence between Democrats and Republicans has widened dramatically within each domain, just as it has in Congress; (2) ideological variation across senators’ partisan subconstituencies is now explained almost completely by party rather than state, closely tracking trends in the Senate; and (3) economic, racial, and social liberalism have become highly correlated across partisan subconstituencies, just as they have across members of Congress.
It’s going to be very difficult to reverse the growing partisan polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the mass public. I think this will continue to give ideological extremists an advantage in both parties’ primaries. It also means that the pool of people that run for office is increasingly extreme.
… there are a host of worrying possible consequences of growing partisan polarization among both elites and the public. It will probably reduce partisans’; willingness to vote for the out-party. This could dampen voters’ willingness to hold candidates accountable for poor performance and to vote across party lines to select higher quality candidates. This will probably further increase the importance of primaries as a mechanism for candidate selection.
In an interview this Sunday, Susan Collins said she would not rule out supporting Donald Trump as the 2024 GOP nominee. (That is despite voting to convict him for “inciting an insurrection” last year.) You can watch her full comments here.
And… yeah, why would that surprise us? What would we expect otherwise? What the Edsall piece makes crystal clear is that Americans’ goals as partisans have quickly come to override their concerns for public health—and, arguably, democracy. The political science research covered above illustrates that when parties polarize too much, especially in two-party systems where rules and institutions (such as the Senate and the filibuster) insulate partisan members from accountability, political actors become much less likely to act against their in-group members and for the greater good. We are witnessing in Collins’s statements the direct consequences of those perverse incentives.
All of this highlights a bigger point that what ails us as a society is undoubtedly shaped by our institutions. That’s why I see reforming our electoral system as a key prerequisite to improving incentives for legislators and voters and healing the divides that are preventing many citizens from evaluating threats rationally.
The real rub is that the same biases blinding many Americans to those threats are also preventing them from seeing the benefits of reform. It will take some brave politicians and selfless actors to clean up the mess the US is in. That will be a tall task.
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You know, the other side has guns and wants to use them. We don't. If the GOP wins the midterms their rank and file will increase the domestic violence. If the GOP loses the midterms their rank and file will increase the domestic violence. As 2024 approaches, their rank and file will increase the violence. Please understand this. They are armed and eager. We aren't. We want to win the midterms and we have to know that more violence is ensuing. That said, we need to win the governorships and Senate seats of 8 states - Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona. To win those states we need to understand the electorate. In Michigan, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, people of color are a minority, and non-college whites are a majority. Therefore, in those states, the GOP will be talking about the stolen election, critical race theory, mask mandates - and it's all a freebie for them. Look at what just happened in Virginia. Not only did Youngkin win Virginia on those ideas, scaring people, critical race theory wasn't even taught in Virginia. As soon as he trashed mask mandates and parents started to rebel, some suburban white woman got up in a public meeting and announced to the world that she would bring her guns locked and loaded to school if her kids were required to wear masks. She had to walk it back because she was recorded and drowned by a million critics on Twitter. Also she's got a criminal charge for threatening violence on school property. So Twitter - that's where we have to fight. People in mainstream America don't give a damn about the attempted coup anymore. They also don't realize that we are headed into a shooting a day world. They aren't progressives - maybe 6% of the US public thinks they're progressives - and they aren't aware of what's coming. I repeat, passports.